Holocaust survivors bemoan the defeat of Alfonse DAmato

WASHINGTON — No one was more saddened than Estelle Sapir to see Alfonse D'Amato lose his Senate seat.

The 73-year-old Holocaust survivor credits the New York Republican with helping her attain a measure of justice that eluded her all her life.

"I almost gave up after so many years," Sapir, who lives in Queens, N.Y., said of her efforts following World War II to retrieve money her father had set aside for her in a Swiss bank account.

"Nobody helped me, and he was the one," said Sapir, who was featured in one of D'Amato's television campaign ads.

For most of those who struggled with D'Amato during the past three years to force Switzerland into providing a moral and financial accounting of its wartime past, his defeat came as a profound disappointment. It's not that they fear his successor, Charles Schumer, a Jewish Democrat, won't be able to represent survivors and Jewish interests as effectively as D'Amato.

They simply hated to see such a stalwart advocate for Jewish interests lose.

"D'Amato was a street fighter and when he believed he had an issue he was right about, such as the Holocaust assets issue, he would fight for it, sometimes in very unconventional ways," said New York attorney Edward Fagan, who has represented survivors in various lawsuits aimed at resolving Holocaust-era claims.

"Once he got committed to something, God help you if you stood in his way."

The same brazen, cantankerous style of politicking that served as a ubiquitous thorn in the side of the Clinton administration on other issues for the better part of six years became a key element in the standoff with Swiss banks. D'Amato's tireless efforts, coupled with the work of Jewish groups, the Clinton administration and attorneys representing survivors, ultimately led to a $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks in August, as well as a framework for pursuing a range of other questions surrounding Holocaust-era assets.

"It could not have been done without Sen. D'Amato, and it could not have been done without President Clinton," Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said of the breakthroughs.

"One thing Sen. D'Amato has after his loss," he added, "is this shining legacy of having changed history." He "achieved a moral triumph that will distinguish his record."

In Switzerland, news of D'Amato's downfall was welcomed almost gleefully.

The Swiss government spokesman, in a comment laced with sarcasm, said, "The government has taken note of Mr. D'Amato's failure to win re-election, obviously with great regret."

Thomas Borer, the Swiss government's leading troubleshooter on Holocaust restitution issues, noted that some Swiss will be opening "a good bottle of wine."

Rolf Bloch, the head of Switzerland's Jewish community, added that "we will not turn down our flag as a sign of sorrow."

Daniel Goldstein, a columnist for the Swiss newspaper Der Bund, wrote: "We will miss you in Switzerland!" D'Amato, he said, "has almost become a slur — what irony that you would now, among other things, trip over an obscene Yiddish slur that you directed toward your Jewish opponent."

He was referring to the now infamous "putzhead" remark, which led to a storm of protest in the Jewish community and succeeded in wiping away whatever Jewish support D'Amato had gained through the Holocaust issue.

Indeed, after emerging as a leading advocate for Jews in the restitution battle, D'Amato received less Jewish support — 23 percent — than in his last election and about the same level as his first two Senate races.

While the departure of D'Amato, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, means that Jews and Holocaust survivors will be losing one of their leading advocates in the Senate, the fact remains that most of Congress' work concerning Holocaust assets has been completed.

Schumer is expected to try to step in to fill the void and play whatever role he can to bring closure to the outstanding issues.

But the mantle now largely falls to a commission of U.S. public finance officers set up earlier this year to coordinate efforts concerning Swiss banks. That committee, headed by New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, has now expanded its monitoring activities to include the whole range of unresolved Holocaust-era claims — most notably those stemming from unpaid insurance policies.

Still, as this final chapter of the Holocaust closes, D'Amato's work will not soon be forgotten.

In fact, D'Amato will be honored next week by the state of Israel at a special Knesset ceremony. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to present the Knesset's "Conscience and Courage" award to D'Amato, Hevesi, Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and WJC President Edgar Bronfman for the role the four Americans played in helping achieve moral and material restitution for Holocaust survivors.